by Catherine B. Peterson, L.C.S.W., Executive Director, Northern Arizona, Catholic Charities

Best guesses are certainly wide ranging, but one Prescott-area agency may be offering a snapshot into the future through a series of youth-focused skills-building programs designed to pay dividends down the road.

“Our mission is to empower youth to be self assured, healthy and involved in their community,” said Diane DeLong, North Star Youth Partnership Senior Program Manager at Catholic Charities.

“We do that through a variety of programs that we have in place in Yavapai, Maricopa and Coconino counties.”

Divided into three component areas – leadership and service, education and development, and sports and recreation – “We’re very proud that our established programs are reaching a variety of youth during in-school and afterschool programs,” she added.

Each year, nearly 4,500 students go through the programs in Yavapai County alone. The numbers grow exponentially when taking into account all 15 programs and partnerships with more than 100 schools and organizations.

The Peer Assistance and Leadership Program (PAL) is an evidence-based national program for teens “to learn leadership skills, develop learning service projects for their community and learn other valuable skills like conflict resolution and better communication,” DeLong said.

“Most importantly, it’s a skills-building program that enables teens to help their peers not just in crisis situations but every day. Maybe it means recognizing why a student at our school is sitting alone every day and being able to initiate that conversation.”

Many hundreds of students, including Granite Mountain Hot Shot Grant McKee, who lost his life in the 2013 Yarnell fire, have gone through the program at Prescott High School, Basis Prescott and in a partnership with United Way at Bagdad High School, among others.

“Grant used the program and the leadership skills he learned to help him overcome and be able to talk about some horrendous things in his life,” DeLong said. “Grant was the epitome of turning a life around using leadership skills to advance. We now have a scholarship in his name that has generated $56,000 worth of college scholarships.”

Girl Talk, an afterschool mentoring program for middle school students, connects high school mentors with younger students in weekly conversations.

“Every lesson has a topic from healthy relationships to what it’s like to date to discovering what is unique or special about you to help develop self esteem. There also are general topics like the environment and healthy eating,” DeLong explained.

“The girls meet in an environment that’s comfortable and safe and encourages and helps build relationships with the high school girls who are developing their own leadership skills.”

Girl Talk is underway at Granite Mountain Middle School (Prescott), Mountain Oaks Charter School (Prescott), Glassford Hill Middle School (Prescott Valley) and Heritage Middle School (Chino Valley).

One former Girl Talk mentor, Tess Peterson, started a similar program while interning at a school in Phoenix during college. Today, she’s in charge of youth activities for the Reno, Nevada, Public Health Department where she’s organizing another North Star Partnership Program, Teen Maze, a nationally recognized life-size game board event that helps teens understand consequences of life choices.

Other North Star programs include Baby … Ready or Not that teaches teens parental responsibilities after spending a weekend with computerized lifelike dolls; Girls & Sports Day for girls 7-to-14 to try traditional and nontraditional sports; Health Education for students in grades 5-12 to learn about puberty, risks of sexual activity and how to shape a bright future; Safe Sitter®, which teaches hands-on life-saving techniques to teens home alone, watching younger siblings or babysitting; and Priceless Prom, a free prom-attire program to lighten the financial burden of the event and serve as a “pay it forward” recycling project.

“We’ve had so many kids we keep in contact with,” DeLong said. “We hear, over and over again, that this is the program that ‘made me who I am today.’ We’d like to take the credit, but the truth is that some of these kids were amazing, and we’re just so flattered when they talk about how we helped them develop their leadership skills and plan for their future.”

For more information, visit catholiccharitiesaz.org.